Restorative Practices Build Community in the Residence Hall

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

By Ted Wachtel

Campus residence hall advisors (RAs) have a tough job. But there is a tool that can make their work easier and more effective: restorative practices. 

Most RAs sign on for the job because they want to help build community, provide guidance to their peers and learn what it means to be in a leadership role. RAs, however, also are charged with managing behavior. They are granted a certain amount of authority to enforce campus policies, rules and regulations.

One RA told us, “It’s a very administrative position, a person who enforces policy—and then you’re a psychiatrist at the same time.”

A lot rides on college RAs, many of whom are 19 and 20 years old. They are in the front lines for student retention, which has a direct impact on the institution’s bottom line. The RA has a role in referring to the proper authorities any student mental health issues that come to notice. Safety rules must be enforced. Campus property must be protected. 

RAs feel whipsawed. While many residential life departments state that their mission is to build community, when it actually comes time to confront problem behaviors, they resort to punitive measures. This excludes and stigmatizes community members rather than bringing them together with their peers to find community solutions to what are ultimately community problems. 

That’s where restorative practices come in. Restorative practices is an emerging social science that empowers people to find their own solutions, resolve conflicts, foster healthy relationships and build social capital. As employed on campus, restorative practices help RAs and residents learn to resolve issues collaboratively and students to take responsibility for their actions.

The philosophy is simple. People respond best when you do things with them, not to them or for them.

Restorative practices range from the formal—which require training, preparation and time—to the informal, which are simple and practical enough to become second nature. They stem from research and practice in education, counseling, criminal justice, social work and organizational management.

The University of Vermont is one institution that uses restorative practices in its residence life program. “We have finally found the mechanism that helps students live cooperatively, connect and genuinely build community in a higher education residential setting,” says Stacey Miller, director of residential life at UVM and a student affairs practitioner for more than 17 years.

Miller says restorative practices provides UVM staff and students with effective ways to maintain healthy residential communities, foster positive relationships, raise consciousness about bias, alcohol abuse and other campus issues and respond to conflicts and problems.

One benchmark for success is the fact that restorative practices helped UVM reduce its annual turnover in residence hall advisors from an average of 17 before 2010 (when they began using restorative practices) down to one this past year.

Restorative practices methods, which can be taught to RAs during their training, range from informal affective statements and questions, to small impromptu conferences, to the use of talking circles and finally to formal restorative conferences. While effective use of restorative practices does require training, it’s not an expert model. RAs easily learn how to ask open-ended questions, use affective statements and conduct talking circles that bring residents onto the same page. 

This is not surprising. While the college residence hall is a demanding environment, restorative practices have been tested and found effective in some of the toughest city K-12 schools in the nation. 

For six years in a row, West Philadelphia High School was on Pennsylvania’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list. Then in 2008, a program of restorative practices was begun. In one year, the number of violent acts decreased by 52 percent. The next year, the number went down by 45 percent from the year before. In Detroit’s Hamtramck School District, one of the most diverse and disadvantaged in Michigan, discipline referrals were cut in half at seven schools after restorative practices were implemented.

Though violence is not among the most common issues faced by college RAs, there are many other challenges posed by moving thousands of people in the youthful stages of emotional, mental and social development into shared living settings with a concentrated population density.

These students do not know each other. Most have never lived away from their families. Many have never shared a bedroom or even a bathroom. Outside of directed social group activities or participation on a sports team, most have not had to work cooperatively with members of their peer group. They have little experience with community.

This is a recipe for problems. Some students struggle with alcohol abuse and drug use. Others are noisy, messy and rude. Some have difficulties with personal relationships, mental health issues or hold racial and religious biases that interfere with their ability to connect with others.

Traditionally, the primary tool the RA has employed to cope with the outcomes of behavior problems resulting from this volatile mix is to play the role of policeman. The use of restorative practices ensures that RAs have to wear that hat less often. And colleges get the community building that they want and that our society needs. 

—Ted Wachtel is president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a fully accredited graduate school in Bethlehem, PA.